sing in me, muse,
and through me,
tell a story.
“Be sensible,” Declan hisses, at once fearful and ferocious. He has never looked so much like their father as he does then. Ronan’s chest hurts just to look at his older brother. He makes sure no sign of this hurt makes its way into his expression. “Give up on this, this madness!” For the first time, Ronan feels the urgency in his brother, leaching from where he leans, looming, into Ronan’s space. “Come home.” Declan’s voice breaks and he takes hold of his younger brother’s shoulders, shakes him. Too upset to be gentle.
“Don’t die here. Don’t die so far from the Barns. Don’t let this place be where you are buried. Among strangers.” As if everyone who does not share their blood is a stranger, no matter the intensity of their affection and shared experiences.
To Declan, there are two types of people: family, and strangers.
Ronan bestirs himself, tears himself from Declan’s grip.
“I have to go,” he says gruffly, to hide the way his throat is thick with unsaid words and unshed tears. “Gansey’s waiting.”
“He isn’t your home, Ronan.” Declan says it like a warning, a farewell. Their mother’s son, full of dull despair and unheeded prophecy. Their father’s general, dour and dutiful.
Ronan’s brother, at once fearsome and pitiful.
“Neither are you,” Ronan replies, and swings himself up onto their father’s gray stallion, speaking low into its ear until they’re thundering away.
Declan stands still in his wake, and if Ronan looked back he’d see his forthright brother prostrating himself on the ground, not too proud to pray.
Ronan doesn’t look back.
Gansey is more godblooded than he isn’t, and this is significant.
All demigods are born for greatness, for terror. All young heroes with ichor in their veins, mixing tidelike and golden with their scarlet mortal blood, are born to be rulers among men, kings and lords and conquerors. Always hungry. Always wanting more.
Gansey is no regular demigod, sired upon a demigoddess by the king of the gods himself.
This is significant.
Gansey glows, almost too much to look at straight on. Almost too much to look at in periphery. Almost too much altogether, perfectly formed and almost too good at killing.
But, Ronan wonders idly, is anyone ever actually too good at killing? Either you are not a killer or you are; Ronan and Gansey have been killers since they were boys, riding into battle to be blooded on Niall Lynch’s flank. Ronan, a Prince, and Gansey, his fostered pseudo-brother.
[They neither of them talk about the night after That Battle, when they spent hours hysterically scrubbing the blood and mud and shit from their skin and then hours hysterically clinging to each other, writhing until they were as close as two bodies could be. Desperate for comfort. Desperate to comfort. It is just another thing they do not talk about. The list of unspeakable truths between them unfurls as far as the eye can see.]
Gansey clasps his forearms and presses their foreheads together and speaks lowly in honeyed tones and Ronan does not think he can be condemned for agreeing readily to whatever it is that Gansey says to him. Whatever it is Gansey asks of him.
It is an unbecoming trait for a prince, but Ronan has never been a good prince. Never had a taste for it. Never had the happy talent of superiority combined with humility. Ronan was at any given time either one or the other— superior to a fault, or humble to the point of shame.
Gansey, a prince in all but name— a prince in blood, a prince among peasants wherever he went, a godborn sovereign with a perfectly-sculpted jaw and hands made to wield a blade— he was good at keeping that balance. Regal yet abashed. Charismatic in spades. Exiled from the place he called his home, all because his kingly stepfather had not been his sire.
Ronan does not think he could be faulted for following such a man, even when that man is saying let’s find him. Let’s find this long-dead hero. He’s not dead, only sleeping. Still alive but he is sleeping.
With the fever of conviction upon him, no one could refuse Gansey.
Ronan, in truth, never wanted to try.
Kavinsky’s concubine glares at them from where he’d been tied to Gansey’s tentpole by Adam’s well-meaning, if inherently mistaken, hands. He has sharp teeth— very white, and small, like pearls. Fair-skinned to the point of being remarkable, especially when considering the equal fairness of his hair.
Prokopenko, the face that launched a thousand ships. The boy who Kavinsky had fought and won a war for. To regain. A boy who’d run away from Kavinsky with some lesser prince of a lesser nation and been dragged back by his hair, as golden as the stories foretold.
Ronan is sure the boy must’ve been very beautiful once, though now that beauty is marred by viciousness and the K burnt starkly into the skin of his left cheek, a brand. A statement.
“This decision will be your last, princelings,” Prokopenko sneers, used to disrespecting far less genial royals than the two of them together. “Have your fun. I’ll have mine later, when K comes for me.” He opens his thighs to punctuate his dismissive statement, the silken robe he’s wearing parting easily to reveal strong muscle and sweet curves. It’s a lovely enough sight, and Ronan swallows dryly, remembering how long it’s been since he was touched in any way that stoked the ever-burning fire in his loins.
“Put that away,” he manages to say, unaffected in tone if not in truth. “That’s not what this is.”
Prokopenko’s head tilts, curiously, the expression catlike. His eyes sharpen, get hungry.
“Ah,” he hums, knowing. “You’re looking for information.”
“You were a prince yourself, once.” Gansey breaks in with, speaking with his hands, earnest as anything. “Were you not? Before Kavinsky conquered your country.”
Prokopenko sits up straighter, closes his legs, loses the maudlin, lustful edge to his posturing and instead just looks tired. “I was.” He allows, solemn. Quiet. Wondering, obviously, what they want to know of him.
Ronan can hardly look at him; he wonders how much dignity one has to sacrifice before they become a traitor, a boy-whore for a king as cruel as Kavinsky. He wonders what it would take for himself to fall into such straits, and knows with certainty that he would die before succumbing to such a fate. Some people are survivors, fearful and scornful of death in equal measure. Others, like Ronan, are world-weary and proud, at any moment ready to tuck themselves into a shroud.
“There was a story, in your country. Of a hero. A man who would’ve been king, but was unsuccessful in his attempts to overthrow—“
“You speak of Glendower.” Prokopenko interrupts Gansey’s fevered ramblings with a graceful ease that belies either his proficiency at being a courtesan or his diplomatic training as a prince.
“I do.” Gansey whispers, and goes to kneel next to Prokopenko, smoothing a hand over his branded cheek. Prokopenko closes his eyes, as if savoring the softness of the gesture. Their heads bend close together, and the tent is filled with the indistinct sound of their murmuring, foreheads touching. To Gansey, everyone is a lover. Everyone can be treated softly, gently, until their mouths are dry and their eyes are wet, overwhelmed.
Ronan goes outside to wait, crouching in the dirt just beyond the flap of the tent, in the cool night air. He listens to the roar of the ocean. Feels a shiver wanting to start low in his back, suppresses it.
Adam appears from the darkness, as quiet as a shade, and stands at his side. Propriety might dictate that a common soldier kneel alongside him; Ronan could not care less about propriety, not when Adam is so close to him that every one of his breaths ruffles the blonde hairs on Adam’s muscled legs, bared by his short tunic. Adam is no common soldier. Has never been a common soldier.
“Gansey?” Adam murmurs, tilting his head back towards the tent. Too-knowing around the eyes. Ronan wants to tell him, suddenly, be out with the whole sordid mess and explain. Explain that Gansey isn’t tupping the unwilling, walking corpse that was once a prince of a great nation. Tell him about Glendower, about their quest, their childhood, the Barns, everything.
He bites his mouth bloody and shrugs, instead, relying on the dark to hide what he cannot, himself.
Adam only nods, resolute, like forcing himself to accept this so-called human part of Gansey.
It makes Ronan sick, but he says nothing.
They had played together as boys, as princes. Prokopenko thought of those times in both nostalgia and paranoid despair— was there some hint, even then? Should he have known?
Worse— had he known, all along, and pretended to himself that he didn’t?
“He wanted land, and gold, and soldiers…” Prokopenko cut himself off with an unamused laugh that rang hollow to any ear that cared hear it. “He wanted many things.” The golden-skinned godprince made a humming, sympathetic sound, intoxicating to be heard. Gods, when last had anyone listened to this tale? Had he ever told it before? He traced with shaking fingers the initial branded into his face. Yes. He had. Once.
K had come to him after the conquering, after their walls had fallen and his father was dead and he stood in the burnt out remains of what was once their grand throne room. K had come, still smeared with the blood of Proko’s people, and his teeth had been bone white next to all that red. Proko could still see the image of him, appearing like the war-god, victorious. Wearing a mask of false sympathy, of regret.
He’d made all kinds of platitudes— placations, promises, pleading. I cannot allow you to live, he’d murmured mournfully, and stroked wet fingers through Proko’s hair, down his cheek, dirtying him too. Not as you are now. But I cannot bear to kill you. Please, do not make me kill you.
And despite all of it, despite all the death and destruction wrought around him, despite the fact that everyone who knew and loved him was now dead, Proko had loved K still, loved the boy he had been when they were both princes and played together like brothers.
(It had not been a brother that K had wanted, even then— not a comrade or an ally, but a subservient thing, bound to him and him alone. He had disliked princes, had disliked anyone whose rank rivaled his own. Had disliked his own father, the king. Even as a child, K had thirsted for power and power and power.)
He had gone quietly enough, and allowed himself to be trussed up and called a war prize, bent his head and bared the nape of his neck to the sneers of every half-decent person who saw him and recognized him for what he was— a coward. He had allowed himself to be oiled and perfumed like a maid, swathed in silk like a bride, laid out in K’s bed like a whore.
“And Glendower?” The godprince’s voice prompted, so gently, lips brushing against Proko’s unscarred cheek. “Did Kavinsky want Glendower?”
Proko laughed then, a strangled sound, and wrapped his fingers around the boy-prince’s throat, remembering. Gansey did not flinch or move to stop him, only allowed it with pupils dilating slowly, slowly.
This was a boy who loved danger. It made Prokopenko gentle himself. He did not need to show the boy that danger did not love him back. The world would do that, soon enough.
For now, he rubbed his thumb over those pillow-soft lips and laughed again. A secret haunted his tone when he spoke, conspiratorial.
“If he knew of Glendower, there would be no stopping him.” If. That was the word.
There were some small measures of victory still to be had, even in a life such as this.
“Kiss me,” he commanded, quiet, and rubbed the tips of their noses together. Intoxicated with it.
Gansey obliged, and slid sword-calloused hands up Proko’s thighs, parting his robe, gently, gently. “Tell me.”
Proko went onto his back and sighed with it, pleasure and secrets and respite.
K would come for him. No doubt he was already on his way. He’d be dragged back to his gilded cage.
This memory would sustain him for a while yet, though. This memory, and the satisfaction that came with knowing.
“There is a temple, three days’ ride from the ruins of the old palace…” Proko began, and did not stop, even though he had to take breaks to moan, to sigh.
The temple is looming and in ill repair, all columns smothered in vines and cracked marble steps. The air smells like blood and ash. Ronan keeps a hand on the pommel of his sword, disliking the taste of it on his tongue. Gansey looks perturbed and thrilled, riding at the head of their party with his cloak wrapped around himself in concession to the damp, foggy chill in the air.
Adam’s eyes are hawkish, sharp, taking everything in with an archer’s perceptiveness, his bow held aloft, an arrow already notched. Though he is not the easy, lifelong horseman that Gansey and Ronan are, he has no trouble staying upright using only the tensed strength in his thighs and core. Ronan finds himself caught like a fish on a hook by the sight of Adam’s legs wrapped around the heaving sides of his mutt-blooded, dapple-coated steed.
He’s too distracted by his own wanting. He misses the telltale signs— the soft patter of footsteps, the whispers on the wind, the stirring that can only come from the presence of people.
An arrow soars through the air, misses Gansey’s head by a fraction of an inch, grazes his ear and leaves him bleeding, and Ronan is distracted.
“Ho!” Gansey bellows, speaking altogether to his horse, his men, and his would-be murderers. “We come in peace!” Another arrow flies out of the thickening fog, and Gansey’s horse rears. “Peace, I say!”
“What peace can be had, Son of the Almighty, between invader and invaded?” A deep, female voice intones, echoing all around them, deafening in its pitch.
“What is the difference between invasion and supplication?” Adam shouts, trying to make out the bowman’s position as they blindly circle Gansey, ringing him in the protection of their bodies, their swords, their shields, their steeds. “Would you slay one who comes seeking only knowledge, ignoring his pleas? Would you call a dead man, slain in cold blood on your doorstep swathed in a flag of surrender, a thwarted enemy? The gods look down upon those who would break the law of guest rights and show themselves not as civilized hosts but as starving wolves, mistrustful and diseased!”
It is a pretty speech, impassioned— Gansey has often murmured that Adam’s true weapon was not his bow but his silver tongue. Ronan has lost many an hour contemplating that silver tongue.
The barrage of arrows halts suddenly.
“You dare to presume what the gods abhor? You, an urchin tagalong being lied to by those he claims as liege-lords?” The voice is lilting, almost laughing, at Adam’s expense. “Very well.”
The fog lifts as suddenly as it appeared; instead of a grown-over ruin, Ronan realizes they are standing in a paradise, a place full of statues and velvet lounges and fountains overflowing with fresh, cut flowers. Overflowing with women, including one in armor, wielding a bow and arrow of her own.
So he cannot trust his own eyes, Ronan thinks grimly, and sets his jaw.
“Gansey,” he says lowly, not taking his eyes from the girl with the bow. Gansey does not respond, not even tapping out a reply in their childhood percussive code. Ronan tears his gaze from the girl and finds that his comrade is… otherwise engaged.
He’s staring at the girl archer too, lips slick and parted, eyes bright.
The first time he decides to be more man than god, Ronan muses in unwilling fascination, and it comes at exactly the wrong moment, inconvenient as all the fields of hell.
Just like a god, to care less about the timing of mortal men.
“Are you thinking about him again?” Ashley murmurs quietly, and steps up behind him to wrap her arms around his shoulders, nuzzle into his neck. Declan sighs, full-body weary, and does not lean back into her embrace. She smells like jasmine, like the imported perfumed oils he pays for that were no doubt rubbed into her skin by the maids he pays to care for her every whim.
It is nothing but expense after expense, keeping a woman. A necessary expense, because men become uneasy when their leader does not keep a pampered lily or two in his fortress. And men who do not understand their leader are not loyal to him, always edged with doubt. With suspicion. Their leader must be as human as they are.
(Unless they aren’t.
Human, that is. Declan is painfully aware of this. He remembers his father, who had inspired such fanatical loyalty. He thinks of Gansey, who has inspired his brother to such terrible heights of abandonment and perfidy. He looks in the mirror and measures himself against them and thinks I am no god but I would not ask any of my men to do what I can or would not, and is something like satisfied.)
Declan does not lean back into Ashley’s soft embrace but also does not pull away, rip himself from her grasping, wanting hands. She knows nothing but this. She lays soft kisses on his nape. She thinks that this is the best way to take care of him. If he tries to contradict her, she will be upset. She will not understand.
Declan allows her this, allows her to snake one lovely, silken hand into the folds of his lovely, silken robe. He closes her eyes when she grasps him, strokes him to full standing and then keeps on. It does feel good. Not better than his own perfunctory sessions, and certainly not what he once preferred, but good.
“You have got to accept that he’s his own man,” she breathes in his ear. “And that he’s not yours to mold, to shape. Not yours. You aren’t his father.” With a deft flick of her wrist, he came on a groan. “You aren’t your father.”
He breathed heavily, feeling languid and boneless. Ashley kissed his cheek in a way nearly motherly, and took herself off to the washbasin to clean his spend from her skin. “You can have someone to mold and shape, you know,” she said conversationally, in a low enough tone that it didn’t grate his nerves. She was different from all the others he’d kept in such a manner.
“Can I?” He drowsed, and let his head loll back, eyes closing.
“Yes,” she replied. “You can.”
Hmm, he thought. Maybe.
For now, though:
“You can sleep here.” It was a kindness, and a statement. Ashley blinked, guileless but smugly pleased. She slipped the straps of her gown down her shoulders and let it pool, silken and cerulean and expensive, around her feet. She slid between the sheets on his bed and gave an inviting look. It was effective.
Declan was sure that it would’ve worked on any of the other men to be found in a fifty mile radius.
Declan was equally sure that she had not and would not try it on any of them, though. Ashley was the fourth daughter of a lesser king. There was more ambition in her than in men thrice her age and twice her status.
“Are you not joining me?” She asked, watching him rise and strap his sword on.
He scrubbed a hand over his own face, sighed long and explosive. “Not now.”
“But sometime.” She spoke it confidently, eyes knowing.
He’d heard tales of her parentage, and did not doubt them now, though how her crusty old father had lured in the goddess of love and beauty escaped him entirely.
“Sometime,” he repeated, and thought of children with cherubic golden curls, laughing eyes, his brothers’ dimples. Children like Matthew, like Ronan had once been. God-blooded children. Children to raise and protect, who would not leave him.
He kissed her knuckles before he went, a promise in his lips.
The practice yard was empty save for the straw-stuffed dummies.
Declan unsheathed his sword and savored the way the air rang with it. He flipped the pommel over his fist a few times, slicing through nothing with a deadly precision.
He breathed deep through his nose and thought of nothing but war.
They have been fed and clothed by the women of the temple, sent to make their camp along the shore, come to rest by an industriously-stoked fire, just the two of them, when Adam finally unclenches his jaw and speaks.
Ronan had been waiting for it ever since the head woman, Maura, had made her jeering little statement behind the guise of the unearthly fog.
“What did she mean?” Ronan does not feign ignorance, only unawareness; he stares into the flames and watches them dance, orange and red and blue. He’s always loved fire. Loved it for how it chased away the night, the dark. Loved it for its warmth, which he craved even when he felt revolted at the thought of touching another person.
(This is not strictly true; Ronan only felt disgust at the thought of touching those whom he did not long to touch. There was no other way for him— all or nothing. Ronan either loved or hated. There was no in-between. This was the prickly thorn bush that stood between him and his father’s legacy of leadership. This was the thing that the gods called hamartia, the thing that would be his downfall, one day. He was sure of it.)
“Ronan,” Adam said, with an urgency he did not often use to address his superiors, always drawn and distant and conscious of the oceans that lay between them, though he was Gansey’s third. There was none with more authority than Adam, save for Ronan and Gansey, himself. Adam almost never seemed real; Ronan cherished these times in which he was undoubtedly alive and roiling inside. Terrorized.
It was sadistic, perhaps. Or maybe masochistic— Ronan sometimes felt that there was no being alive in the world who understood him more than Adam. Ronan sometimes felt that they were two halves of the same whole, that they’d been broken apart sometime long ago and separated, and only when they were reunited did his heart stutter back to life, renewed. Reborn, he’d been, seeing all of his own helpless fury and his smothered hope reflected back in Adam’s golden-skinned face.
It was as humbling and tremendous now as it was then, but edged in a silvery, thready peril that had never been present before, as intoxicating as dark red wine.
“Ronan!” Adam finally snapped, and Ronan looked away from the flames and into his face, finally.
“You would be happier if I did not tell you.” He warned, and meant I cannot bear to tell you.
So there is something to tell, Adam’s expression said, half-lit. Betrayed.
“I have never been happy.” Adam whispered fiercely, wrathful. “Ronan. I have never been happy.”
Of course. “We seek a sleeping king.” He said slowly, trying to figure out where to start. “It began- there was, there was an accident.” Not the right word. “No. It was. We were reckless. Gansey and I. We were very, very reckless, and Noah. He died. He- he’d always looked after us, he was older than us and he looked after us in battle and he was.” There were many things that Noah had been. Where to start? How did you summarize someone whose memory you’d kept clenched in your fists for years?
It felt like exhaling a breath full of ice. “Noah was everything.” He settled on, and still that was not right. Noah was everything and Noah was nothing and Ronan remembered everything about him and nothing at all, and every day that passed without them finding Glendower was another step they took away from Noah, whose urn now rested in Ronan’s family crypt, whose ashes they’d left behind.
“I have given you everything.” Adam murmured blankly, blinking. Processing. Thinking on the fact that he had never suspected them of duplicity, that he thought they campaigned for glory, to stretch out their legs before their inevitable shackling to some throne or another.
“We quest.” Ronan replied, and meant is it not better that we are not the gallivanting dilettantes you thought us?
“You lie. ” Adam said, and left, meaning it is no comfort to realize that everything you thought was wrong.
Ronan went back to staring at the flames, and felt cold through to his marrow.
“You’re lovely.” It was almost aggressive, the way Gansey said it, and he wanted to wince as soon as it flew from his lips but didn’t, trying to seem unaffected even though he’d all but admitted his ensorcellment with the admission.
The archer blinked at him, arching one eyebrow. She was amused by him. She was laughing at him. “Yes.” She said simply, acknowledging the fact like she might if Gansey had said the sky is blue or the ocean is watery or something equally as inane.
“Have you- that is, do you- I am Gansey. Son of the king of the gods.” It sounded like bragging, like some pompous thing- he sounded ridiculous. He was such a ridiculous thing. What was this? He had never been thus. He had never felt so off-balanced, not even when he was hardly fourteen and taking his first tumble in the sheets with a brown-eyed sheepherder he met on one of their earliest forays.
“Yes.” The girl said, and she was laughing at him, sharpening arrowheads with steady, sure movements. There were gold beads in her hair that caught the light from the torches whenever she made the slightest movement. Her skin reminded him of beach sand. He felt clumsy with his desire for her.
“Alright.” He managed to say, and started to edge from the room, scarlet tipping his ears. Humiliation boiling, unfamiliar, in his gut.
“Blue.” She said, not looking up from her work.
“My name is Blue.” And her teeth were very white and very straight when she flashed them in the briefest, most challenging smile he’d ever seen.
Blue. He felt lightheaded with it.
“Blue.” He repeated, and went headlong into the night.
“Other men have come searching for the sleeper,” Maura said, bored, seated in the leftmost throne.
“They all want the same things,” Calla continued, seated in the rightmost throne.
“Money, power, women… ” Persephone listed, trailing off, running a comb through her long white hair, seated in the center throne.
“I want none of those things,” Gansey interrupted, impatient to the gums.
“You want all of those things,” they retorted as one, unimpressed with him.
“I want to right a wrong,” he tried, widening his eyes and opening his palms to them, supplicant again. The role itched, wrongly fitting. He misliked asking, pleading. He’d never done much of it, and was unpracticed.
“You know nothing of right and wrong,” Maura hummed, laughing. She looked everything and nothing like her daughter, then, and Gansey wondered at who the girl’s father was or had been, if Blue got her earnest nobility from that parent or if it came to her as a naturally-given gift from whatever god had a hand in crafting her soul.
“Don’t play with him.” As if his thoughts had summoned her, there she was- her voice cracking like a whip through the space, demanding to be heard. Angry.
Angry on his behalf, and Gansey’s fingertips tingled.
“And why shouldn’t they?” An unfamiliar voice asked, lofty, from across the room. Gansey found himself looking at a lean, lovely young woman in an orange chiton, draped suggestively across a couch and nibbling on a grape. Sapphires gleamed on her brow, and her eyes shone with some secret womanly knowledge. “What is the boy-prince to you?”
Blue bristled, blazing, furious. “Is this how we entertain ourselves? Have the priestesses of this order fallen so far? Taunting a hero seeking knowledge? Pathetic.”
“You go too far,” the sapphire-wearing girl snapped. “You are no priestess, anyway. You ensured that, didn’t you? Have you told your prince of what-”
“Orla,” Calla said, wearily rubbing at her temples.
“Enough.” Maura finished.
“Blue, you’re right.” Persephone said, and smiled gently.
“It matters naught,” Maura told her, Gansey entirely forgotten. “There is nothing for it. He cannot find the sleeper. He could never.”
“I couldn’t?” Gansey asked, trying to maneuver himself back into the thick of it.
“I know he couldn’t.” Blue murmured, so quiet that Gansey had to strain his ears to listen. “But I could.”
“Absolutely not!” Calla exclaimed.
“No. No, Blue.” Maura said, urgent.
“That’s a wonderful idea.” Persephone nodded, gazing out into middle distance. “Four to go, five to return. One to sleep, two to wake. Three reunited, twice over. Two curses broken. A death with no funeral.”
The silence was thunderous in the wake of this prophesying.
“It’s been decided, then.” Calla murmured, finally, grimly.
“So it has.” Maura agreed, and so it was.
The boat was small. Blue hadn’t expected that, somehow, that she would have to share this space with these young men when she had never spent any time with young men. They’d been distant oddities, and she had known hardly anything of them that wasn’t secondhand knowledge from her cousins or observable from a distance.
They smelt… odd. Like large animals did, sweaty and earthen, but also like their herbal tinctures and the oils they used on their leathers. Like they hadn’t had a proper bath in a long while, but not rancid. Not bad, necessarily. Just different. Blue had spent her entire life either around the priestesses or in the woods. Being confined in close quarters with men was neither of those things, and yet somehow it wasn’t horrifically alien, being with them.
Her bedroll still smelt of home, at least, and she slept with her back facing their bunks and a knife clutched in her hand beneath her pillow, just in case. Just in case, that’s what Orla had murmured to her, pressing it into her hand before she left.
Blue and Orla had never gotten along, but she’d taken the gesture for what it was. Love, and protection, and fearfulness.
The ocean was vast all around them. Blue had never felt so untethered.
Gansey lay only ten feet away, a terrible temptation through each night. Blue had never felt so unmoored.
“What do you think of the girl?” Adam asked lowly, and cut his eyes towards Blue inconspicuously as they rowed. He’d half-expected her to balk at the idea of rowing, but had been proven wrong when she squared up and took hold of an oar. She hadn’t stopped since, and indeed didn’t even seem to sweat, just sat and breathed easily.
Ronan snorted quietly, rolled his shoulders. Adam remembered abruptly the stories he’d heard of Ronan’s mother, the dowager queen, a flower-wreathed, soft-skinned thing, a blushing, laughing-eyed maid even after three sons born and grown. He remembered the tales of Gansey’s older sister, who’d handfasted with the head warrior of an all female-clan and now ruled alongside her after besting her in hand-to-hand combat. He supposed that Ronan was used to women in positions of power, women who were not his own mother, beaten-down and cruel-mouthed.
“I think she’s trouble,” Ronan murmured in response, and did not have to go on and say but so are all of us. He meant that he approved of her, seconding Adam’s own half-formed judgement.
Adam only nodded, and felt steadier for knowing Ronan’s opinion on the matter.
“We’re being followed,” Ronan said shortly, a few hours after dawn, when they were still packing up their campsite. Prioni, his raven, nibbled at one of his earlobes, jealous of his attention.
Gansey grimaced, and looked over his shoulder as if their pursuants could be found just beyond. He and Ronan exchanged a telling series of wordless gestures that made Adam feel more of an outsider than he had in years. It ended with Gansey nodding sharply, and going off to find Blue, who’d in turn gone off to find some kind of herb, or maybe some kind of rock. Adam hadn’t paid much attention, as when she’d said it Ronan had been oiling his leathers and it was all he could do to keep his eyes fixed firmly in the opposite direction, away from where he knew Ronan would be shirtless and kneeling and working the oil into each tooled groove of his armor with long, nimble fingers.
“Who?” Adam asked, trying to catch up.
“Someone who knows we’re after Glendower.” Ronan bit back, working at fastening one of the buckles of his breastplate. It was a tricky one, right up underneath his right arm. Unthinking, Adam stepped up to help him, hands remembering what to do from the years he’d spent as a squire in the army, before coming into Gansey’s company.
Ronan’s breath caught; Adam was reminded again of why he tried to stay away from Ronan, every brush of his fingers on Ronan’s skin zinging like a tiny lightning bolt up the back of his neck. He rubbed his tongue over the roof of his own mouth restlessly, trying to be dispassionate about the job.
It was a bad idea. It was a bad idea.
“Adam,” Ronan said, low, gravelly, throat full of broken glass and molasses, and Adam wanted to moan. Ronan smelt strongly of the oil he used to keep his armor supple, and of the sea, where he’d gone for a swim the night before. The shaved nape of his neck was a terrible temptation.
“Adam,” Ronan said again. He was always saying it. Even when he was saying something else, it all sounded like Adam.
Adam was still so mad, still so betrayed.
He was also dizzy with want.
“Adam, are you done?” Ronan all but snarled, and ripped himself away from where Adam had stood with the buckle fastened and his fingers curling restlessly beneath it, knuckling into the scant softness right below his scapula.
“Yeah,” Adam mumbled, and went to strap his bedroll and pack onto his horse’s back.
“They are coming,” Blue whispered, and clutched her bow tight. But even she seemed to realize that there would be no fighting, only slaughter. Her shoulders straightened and her hands shook and then a great calm settled over her, an inevitability that fell like a mantle over her straight, fine-boned shoulders.
Gansey, bleeding golden ichor mixed with red mortal blood from a long, thin cut on his cheek, clenched his hand tighter around the hilt of his sword.
“Do you trust me?” Blue asked him, when the horde was close enough that Gansey could hear them, could feel their footsteps vibrating minutely the ground on which they stood.
He did not have to think. “Yes.”
“Don’t be scared,” she told him, and framed his face with her hands, bowing their foreheads together, close enough to kiss. He was at first not sure what was happening, except that it was important, and their situation was even more dire than he realized.
The bark bled out from Blue’s skin like feathers, overlapping neatly in small bursts, the same cinnamon color of her skin and fresh-smelling, like springtime. Her eyes were closed, and she smiled as she shivered with it. Her body became bark, and her limbs stretched, growing, growing, and the sun was blocked out, and Gansey was not afraid.
He thought of playing hide and seek with Ronan at the Barns, young enough that they still were under the care of their old nurse, who despite being old and bent-backed walked the woods behind them, trailing, calling out here I come, a monster in the trees! run, run, and hide from me! a children’s game that smacked of excitement, made their hearts race as if there really was a monster after them, and not just Old Nan, made them scream with excitement, taking refuge in hollowed-out trees.
Blue became a refuge, became a hollowed-out tree around him. He could feel her, all around, could hear her, hear the rustles of her leaves and the soft sighs of her, press his cheek to her inner-bark and feel it, smooth as silk, against his skin. Hiding in the dark, safe, nostalgic for something he had no name for.
Gansey, Gansey, Gansey, the rustles of her leaves sighed, and he closed his eyes to hear it better, sighing himself.
If it were possible, he thought he could stay like this. They could stay like this. Forever. To hell with destiny. To hell with Glendower.
To hell with everything that wasn’t this, bliss.
Princess Ashley was kinder than any of Declan’s other women had been.
Matthew was quick to realize this; it was clear from the way she spoke, intentional and clear, no artifice and wordplay to confuse her conversational partners and shade her own motives. It was clear from the way she smiled at the children who always hung about, small boys and girls who she slipped sweets and fruits to, plucked from the seemingly bottomless pockets of her silken gowns. It was clear from the way she watched Declan, eyes soft and mouth relaxed, like she cared about what happened to him.
It made him like her in a way he’d never liked any of the others before her, and slowly the knot of worry in his stomach labeled Declan began to unwind, threads dissolving until he felt like he could breathe better than he’d been able to in years.
“Prince Matthew,” she named him in surprise the day he came to call on her in her rooms, carefully-appointed and full of lush wealth. Declan’s doing, or his bidding, at least. Matthew’s oldest brother had always had an eye for detail, a sense of what was important. Making sure that Ashley’s status was clearly displayed was no doubt high on the list of what was important.
“My lady,” he said back, and smiled, knowing that her maids would circulate the story of his visit throughout the castle and surrounding area. She knew it too, and he could practically see the gears turning in her head.
He meant to force his brother’s hand, just a bit. Just enough. Publicly declaring his favor for this girl, this king’s daughter, when he had never had anything much to do with Declan’s previous companions— well, that would be something. Something significant. Declan would see it for the push it was.
Matthew loved his brother. He wanted what was best for him.
Ashley, with a gleam of shrewd intelligence in her eyes and gentle hands nimble on her tapestry loom, would be, if not best, then good for Declan.
As king, Declan needed good people behind him.
“Tell me something,” Declan demanded, low and furious and sick with what he’d seen, in his dream at the temple, brought on by the priests and their mind-opening herbs. He knelt before her, and Ashley felt overcome with it, with the rush of unexpected emotion bubbling in her throat, making her eyes hot with unshed tears. The vulnerable curve of his head made her feel unreasonably protective. She’d never felt like this, concern to the point of feeling ill.
“What do you want to hear?” She murmured back, trying to keep her tone smooth, trying to be deferential, trying.
He groaned, low and guttural and upset. Displeased, and aching, and disturbingly young. She always forgot how young he was; a year younger than her, though he always seemed so much older. So untouchable.
“Shh,” she whispered instead of waiting for his answer, and closed her eyes, pushing her fingers into his hair. “Shh. Did I ever tell you about my oldest sister?” She didn’t wait for an answer, and instead went on, pitching her voice low. “When she was sixteen she decided she’d not be married. Wasn’t interested in it. And you know my father— he wouldn’t hear it. Wouldn’t hear any of it. So Thea, she decides she’s going to dedicate herself to the priestesshood.” She paused to laugh, and kept running her fingers through Declan’s hair. His breaths came less harshly than before, his face burrowed deep into her plain linen skirt. She’d forgone the silk— she hadn’t thought he was coming to her rooms tonight, heard that he’d went to the temple and assumed. Her hair was unbound like a girl’s. No jewelry accented her eyes or set off the gold tones in her skin. “No matter that she loves wine and parties and jewels and fun. She’d become a priestess, wear virgin whites and eat gruel for the rest of her life. My father refused, of course.”
In short, she felt terribly naked, and did not know what to do except carry on, cheeks burning. “My oldest sister has always been very rash. She decided she’d run away, in the middle of the night, and begged for assistance from one of the youngest men in my father’s guard, Xandros.” Here Ashley laughed again, and didn’t jump when she felt Declan nuzzle even closer to her, one of his hands coming up to wrap around her calf. “I still do not know what happened in the three days they were gone before being recovered on the road to Delphi by my father’s men, but when they returned they confessed themselves to be madly in love. My father was so overjoyed he gave them his blessing there and then, and married them himself in the throne room. I think he was afraid Thee would change her mind.”
She felt him moving and looked down in surprise to see his shoulders shaking slightly. No wetness fell upon her lap, and she realized he was laughing, too. She didn’t think she’d ever seen him laugh.
“Would you like me to call for some tea?” She asked neutrally, just to see. To gauge him. She felt unmoored by not knowing exactly what he wanted from her. It wasn’t often she didn’t know what a man desired.
It took a while, but he finally answered, and his tone was still heavy, but lighter than it had been before. He sounded almost… hesitant. “Could I trouble you to sleep here, for the night?”
It was a question. A real question, not a careless command disguised as a query.
Ashley couldn’t remember the last time she’d been asked anything by a king. At least, by a king she wasn’t actively manipulating for her own gain.
Declan was different.
But then, she’d known that for a while, hadn’t she?
“Of course,” she replied, forgoing the my lord that should follow the assent. Cautious.
Hopeful, for something she hardly dared think of.
It had been a long time since she’d been a starry-eyed maiden with hope in her heart.
The feeling of it swelling, girlish, in her chest was… pleasant.
“They’re escaping!” Kavinsky, conqueror of kings, bellowed in fury, spurring on his rowers. “Damn the gods! Burn the temples! They are escaping!” It was nearly a child’s tantrum, except Kavinsky was no child. He had never been a child— not even when he was a youth, hair still long and skirts still long. There had always been a snake living inside his breast, coiled and waiting.
Prokopenko, at his side, did not reach out to comfort him. He watched Gansey’s small, light ship sail faster and faster towards the small tributary that would take them out of the reach of Kavinsky’s wide, commanding warship. Further out of Kavinsky’s reach.
Further towards Glendower, and Prokopenko had not been on these waters since he was still a prince, yet unclaimed, yet unmarred. He reached a hand up to trace the scar on his cheek, the K burnt into his flesh.
If he squinted, he could see on the horizon the ruins of their walls, the space of sky that had once been occupied by their towers. It was on these waters his father had taught him to sail.
“May I go belowdecks?” He murmured in the soft, submissive tone that Kavinsky had beaten into him around the second month of his captivity. “My head aches.” He’d been playing this role so long that K had forgotten how he’d once been. Vibrant, furious, with rage behind his teeth.
“What?” K snapped, absentminded, conversing with his generals, Skov and Jiang. Swan bellowed abuses at the rowers, stirring them on. “Fine, go.” He was dismissive, unthinking.
Proko had known it would end like this. He’d known it down to his bones, from the first time he’d been arrayed in silk and pressed open in K’s bed. A bedslave, when once he’d been a crown prince.
He forced himself not to move too quickly. Slowly, slowly. He had time. He had enough time to walk slowly to the hatch and breathe in the familiar sea air. He had enough time to savor the sunshine on his shoulders.
K’s bed was wide and sumptuous, silk-sheeted and piled in cushions. A good enough place to die.
A luxurious place to kill.
The accelerant was from the armory, the pitch that the soldiers dipped their arrows in before lighting them, before firing them. He poured it industriously around the bed, through the abandoned halls, all the way to the bottom of the stairs that led to the deck.
He settled himself into the bed and took a long swing of the sweet liquor K kept tucked beneath the pillows.
“I am sorry, father.” He said aloud for the first time, making the apology that had haunted his every step since he stood alone in the throne room and knew what he had wrought. How he had failed , blinded by boyish sentimentality. He’d been a child. He’d been a fool. “I am sorry it has taken me this long.”
The firesteel was heavy in his hand. K was still screaming angrily abovedecks. It was now or never.
Prokopenko struck a spark.
The flames were quick.
“Gods above,” Ronan swore, staring.
“What?” Gansey asked, but trailed off mid-word, seeing. Understanding.
Kavinsky’s great warship had become a pillar of flame and smoke— of death, and Blue murmured a quiet prayer, reflexively pious, that Ronan echoed.
Adam prayed too, but a prayer of thanks instead of mercy.
He steered their ship into the mouth of the river that would take them further on their quest, and thought thank the gods that Kavinsky is dead.
Queen Piper was possibly the most beautiful woman Ronan had laid eyes upon.
It set him on edge, made him grind his teeth. Made him narrow his eyes in mistrust.
Adam, on the other hand, blushed like a fucking virgin as soon as he’d laid his eyes upon Her Royal Highness, and had stayed the color of pomegranates all through the feast they’d been treated to, and after, when they’d all been invited to Queen Piper’s private sitting room, a haremic place full of silk rugs and cushions and gauzy curtains.
“Such brave warriors you all are, to come all this way,” she gushed, twirling her golden hair around her finger, and Gansey was gaping, mouth wet and parted. Adam was practically bleeding from the nose with want. They reeked with it. The only thing keeping Ronan from drawing his sword was the fact that Blue seemed just as disgusted as he was.
Well, that, and the fact that his sword had been confiscated at the gate.
“But, oh!” Piper exclaimed, as if just then she’d had some kind of divine epiphany. Her voice was disturbingly girlish, high and sugared-down. It grated on Ronan’s nerves. “You’ll want to bathe, I’m sure! And new clothes, you’ll need new clothes to wear! What a host I am, neglecting you!” Even as they were all shuffled from the room by various servants, Gansey and Adam were profusely trying to reassure her that no, of course she wasn’t a bad host.
It made Ronan sick. Made him furious, to see Adam looking at the queen with such abject. Made his hands want to kill, made every fiber of his being call out murder murder murder.
He’d known he wasn’t a good man, but this only confirmed it. Nauseous, he allowed himself to be led to a richly-appointed guest room.
Blue’s teeth ached from clenching her jaw so tightly by the time she escaped the grip of the servants no doubt meant to glean every bit of information they could from her, if their sly questions when bathing her were any indication.
The garment they dressed her in, while cleaner than her armor and filthy tunic, showed far more of her figure than she was comfortable with, deep violet silk that plunged low in the back and the front. The brush of it against her skin was distracting, very nearly hypnotic in its soft, shivery pleasure. Something one of her cousins would’ve worn, but never Blue herself.
Barefoot, she made her way soundlessly through the halls, comforted by Orla’s knife, which she’d managed to secret past the gate and hide from the servants, still strapped to her thigh, beneath the billowy silk dress.
She let the little tingle of awareness at the base of her spine guide her to where Gansey was being kept; since she’d held him within her, since she’d taken on her other form to shield him, she couldn’t help but be painfully in tune with his whereabouts.
There were no servants attending him, either, when she slipped into the guest room that he’d been led to.
There were no servants, and also no clothes, because he lay still in a copper tub that matched the one she’d bathed in, steam rising and the scent of lavender and basil oils thick in the air. His chest was smooth and golden, his shoulders damp and broad, and her mouth went abruptly dry. Suddenly, every step seemed even more terribly lush, every sweep of silk against her skin heightened.
“Gansey,” she whispered, and he slitted his eyes open, eyelashes spiky and wet, to look at her, a great amused beast in what was arguably his natural habitat. A prince, a demigod, and Blue couldn’t bear to look without touching, the air between them seeming to vanish. Every breath she took was fever-hot.
“Get my back?” He asked, cocking a sardonic brow. A joke, maybe, except it came out into the air between them and wasn’t a joke. She’d never been one to back down from a challenge. Not as a child and not now, either.
Not now, with her blood boiling in her veins, feeling lusty for something other than battle, an increasing occurrence when she was around him.
She took up the cloth he offered her wordlessly and nudged him until she could get at his back, a wide plane of golden skin and muscle that tapered into a slim waist she wanted to dig her fingers into. Handsome enough to be a god.
Beautiful. He was beautiful. She ran the cloth over his already-clean skin for an excuse to touch him, and didn’t know how she was going to make herself stop.
“Will you ever tell me?” He sighed, eyes closed and cheek resting on his knees, letting her do whatever she wanted. There was a single lonely freckle on the underside of his jaw that she ached to brush her mouth over.
“Tell you what?” She retorted, chest tight with years worth of suppressed emotion.
“What you keep trying to tell me.” He shrugged, a laconic gesture that made all the muscles in his back shift deliciously, made her so delirious in her wanting that she dropped the cloth and stumbled back away from him, pressing her damp hands to her face, trying to cool down.
“You— you remember what my cousin Orla tried to say— about me not being a priestess.” She didn’t stop to wait for him to respond, all of it spilling from her in a manic rush, a relief and a torment. Finally, he’d know. Finally, he’d know. “I was supposed to be— I was supposed to take up robes and devote myself like my whole family, but I— I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to do it,” she corrected herself, and couldn’t look at him. “But the god, he was— upset. At me. For refusing. I wasn’t supposed to refuse.” She barked a laugh, short and unhappy. “So in punishment, he cursed me. I’m not… I can’t kiss anyone. Or… anything else. If I won’t give my body to the god, I won’t give it to anyone. Or they’ll die.” There. It was out. Jumbled and clumsy and shrill, but out.
The water churned as Gansey stood; she saw him in her periphery and laughed again, the sound gone high-pitched, hysterical. He dripped water from every inch of his golden skin, all of him exposed, and here she felt more vulnerable than him, fully-clothed and dry and armed.
“Blue,” he said, and stepped from the tub to walk over, pupils blown and yet expression so earnest. Unconcerned with nudity the way soldiers were, the way boys were when they grew up surrounded by other boys. So proper normally, but slipping with the enchantment in the air all around them, weak with his need to do something, to comfort the anguish evident from the slant of Blue’s shoulders, the crackling in her voice.
“We can’t—“ she whispered harshly, and held her hands out to him as if to ward him off. “I don’t want to hurt you.” Or worse, went unsaid.
He caught her hands in his, tugged them up to frame his face, the way she had in the woods.
“You won’t.” He said. “Do you trust me?” He parroted her own words back at her.
“I do.” Damn you, but I do, she thought, reckless and broken-open. This close, she could smell his breath, minty and alive.
He leaned their foreheads together. “Close your eyes.”
She breathed like that, shaky at first and then longer, steadier, with her hands on his cheeks and his curled around her wrists, their bodies inches apart and their lips so close, oh.
I love you, she thought, and knew that she would do anything, anything for him. Slay his enemies, lay down her life, anything.
Something in her chest unclenched.
They would get out of this. They would make it out of this castle alive.
I love you, she thought, and breathed.
He lay on a velvet chaise, robed in silk and being fed olives ripe and black as beetles from the rosy fingertips of Piper’s most becoming maids, who fanned him with palm fronds and hummed over him, called admiring attention to every square foot of his form, simpering.
They’d rubbed oils into his skin until he shone with it, as golden as Gansey. Ronan could smell him all the way across the room, thickly citrusy.
Adam appeared the pampered prince of some exotic land, and Ronan was at once inflamed with desire and revulsion at the sight.
Desire to be the one who had given him all of these luxuries.
Revulsion because the Adam he’d known for so long was not interested in being plied with trinkets and whores; the Adam he’d known for so long was as rigidly steadfast as they came, and proud to a shuddering fault.
This was not his Adam, if Ronan could be so bold even in his own head to lay claim to the man, and he felt like a worshipper gazing upon a false version of their god, sick with it. Overcome with a longing to take hold of the duplicitous thing’s mask and wrench it off with violent force.
“Adam,” he said, voice too-loud in this oasis of calm. Out of place. Jarring.
Adam opened one eye, which had gone glassy, and then the other. He regarded Ronan with a lazy sweep of those glassy eyes, dismissive and yet interested.
“Come here,” he commanded, and opened his arms, his legs, until Ronan was cottonmouthed and his ears were ringing.
He did not refuse.
(He could not refuse.)
The maids slipped off with knowing little smirks, tittering and linking hands as they left them to their own devices.
Ronan crossed the floor to wrap himself up in Adam’s grip, pressing their chests together, tangling their legs down to the ankle. Up close, he could count each freckle on Adam’s high cheekbones. He was prettier than any maiden from any story.
“Ronan,” Adam sighed, heavy under the witch-queen’s enchantment. “Ronan,” he repeated, like he had on the beach but infinitely more soft, inviting in a way that made Ronan dizzy with possibility.
“Forgive me,” Ronan said, and slammed his fist into the side of Adam’s well-formed skull.
Adam fainted, face going white and eyes rolling back into his head.
Ronan grimly gathered him up, slinging him over his shoulder, and went off to find Gansey and Blue.
They had a hero to awaken.
“He’s going to come home,” Declan mumbled, only half-awake, startled from his dream by the crash of thunder outside.
“Shh,” Ashley hummed, more than half-asleep, and held him tighter, pressed all along his back.
Obedient like he never was when he was awake, Declan pressed his face deeper into the pillow he clutched to his chest and fell back to sleep, lulled by the heat of her at his back and the shimmering patter of the downpour.
Queen Piper spoke of immortality and magic and superiority, but she fell like any other living thing did when a blade severed their jugular.
Blue was satisfied enough to learn this; though she’d grown fond of the bow, she’d never forgotten her earliest lessons from Calla, one-on-one and both of them armed with nothing but a short sword, clad in tunics beneath the hot summer sun.
Blood soaked through her borrowed silken clothes; she felt rabid with it, pleased with the carnage the way she always was, when it was something precious she was defending.
Before, she’d only felt that way when she was defending the temple, defending her family.
Now, there was a fierce pride in her veins, surging whenever she remembered that she was the one who had done it, who had killed in defense of Gansey.
He buckled her into her armor, once they discovered where Piper’s servants had hidden all their belongings and weapons. His hands were nimble, and took their time, especially on the buckles running along the insides of her forearms, where every brush of his fingertips made her shiver.
A storm raged outside in the dark, but Gansey insisted they press on. Too close to stop now.
She took a deep breath before she plunged out into the night, rain washing away the witch-queen’s blood, plastering the hair that had escaped its braid to her forehead.
She knew the way. She’d always known the way.
The forest was thick, but her feet did not falter.
“Follow me,” Blue said, and led them to the entrance of the sleeper’s cave.
“Did you know?” Gansey rounded upon her, fists clenched and chest creaking, empty of air, empty of hope. “Did you know?” He bellowed. He had the temper of a god, passed down from his father. Slow to rise, but tempestuous when it did come.
The bones lay, bleach-white and accusing, on their altar.
Glendower, the famed sleeping hero. Glendower, dead for years and years and years.
Glendower, whose bones were not laid in disarray and among rotted clothing, but instead arranged neatly, scrubbed-clean, among crystals and candles. Deliberate, all of it.
“Did I know what?” Blue snarled in response, a hand on the knife at her belt, affronted and aggrieved both, slipping into more formal language than she’d used since she became comfortable around them. “Did I know that the hero you sought was long-dead? Did I know that the wish you looked for was not to be granted? Ask me what you will, Gansey— I will answer any question, just ask me!”
“We need that favor!” Gansey spat, and picked up one of the crystals to fling, as desperate and furious as Ronan had ever seen him. The mask of mortality was slipping off of him like an ill-fastened cloak. The crystal shattered on one of the carved stone walls. “Damn the gods, we need it!”
“Why? What do you seek? Gold? Immortality? I have followed you— I have guided you, across nations, and still you haven’t told me why.”
It was an accusation as hard as the one he’d flung at her, and it settled his fury, if only just a bit.
“Seven years ago—” he started, and didn’t know how to continue. “We want to bring our fallen comrade back from the underworld.” He tried, and pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes, overwhelmed.
“And you thought a long-sleeping hero could do that.” Blue surmised, feeling as if time had slowed to a crawl. Like each word was made of molasses.
She’d forgotten that they were ever not at her side, the three of them. She’d forgotten that they had not grown up at the knee of priestesses, that they did not understand what she had known since she was a child.
This was why Persephone had sent her, she realized. To make them understand.
“To bring someone back from the underworld, you have to go there yourself.” She told the three of them, tone gone patient, mimicking the one Jimi used when instructing the children of their order.
She did not mean it as a plan, but saw the moment that her words registered in Gansey’s desperate mind that he saw it that way. His gaze fell to her mouth, obvious and heavy-handed. He took a step forward.
The air in the cave was hot with their mingled breaths, with the adrenaline pumping through their veins and the crush of hopelessness in their hearts.
“No,” she said, and stepped back, as far away from him as she could get. “No, no, no.”
“It was my fault,” Gansey said, a boy and a god, all of him a heartbroken thing. Interrupted seven years ago, and operating on panic mode ever since, hiding behind a veneer of civility and strength. “Blue, it was my fault.” He curled a hand around the knife at his own belt, reflexive.
She could see too-clearly what he would do with that knife.
He’d do with the knife what she was refusing to do with her lips, with her kiss, and she was dizzy with the image in her mind, his blood everywhere and the pungent iron-tinged scent of it thick in her nose.
She’d thought, only hours ago, about what she would do for him. Anything, she’d vowed to herself. Anything, anything.
She did not expect anything to mean this.
“We need to think about this.” Ronan interrupted, darkness rising in a wave inside him, threatening to crest and drag him under with its riptide. He fought with it, trying to stay calm. Trying to stay rational, when all he wanted was for everything to burn.
Glendower’s bones very nearly vibrated, so hard to ignore. He couldn’t look at them without feeling like he was going to start screaming and never stop.
“What’s there to think about?” Gansey laughed humorlessly. Too cynical by half. It made Ronan’s throat ache. Where are you, he wanted to ask. Come back.
“We need to prepare. If it doesn’t work…” Ronan did not continue. Swallowed thickly around the panic creeping. “We need to prepare. We need to go home, Gansey.”
Gansey hummed, melancholic. “Home.” He said, an agreement.
The Barns was a sprawling place; Adam always felt intensely connected to Ronan whenever he rode through the gates of the capitol city, as if he could feel Ronan’s soul echoing all around with each ruffled blade of grass, each birdcall.
Riding through the gates with Ronan at his side was another matter entirely; though he followed Gansey to the ends of the earth, Ronan was never more himself than he was when he was home, when he first got a lungful of the sweet grassy air and his eyes were finally allowed to rest, his shoulders going loose and his jaw unclenching.
Blue and Gansey rode ahead of them, solemn-eyed and grim-mouthed. Unspeaking, all through the return journey, though they sent longing, tortured gazes at each other’s backs.
It didn’t feel real. None of it. Nothing made sense and everything was sharp-edged— except Ronan.
Ronan, who was soft in his grimly accepted despair. Who kept finding excuses to touch Gansey, when before he touched no one— a hand curled around Gansey’s forearm, fingers tugging at his hair, shoulders knocking together companionably. All ways to say I am here I am here I am here.
They arrived in the night, Ronan calling out a greeting to the guardsmen assigned to the city gate that stirred all of them to action, a flurry of movement and bellows.
Declan met them when the gates opened, no eyes for anyone except Ronan. He looked like he had not slept in a long while; he pulled Ronan from the back of their father’s horse with force, using his age and weight advantage to drag his younger brother down into his embrace. Ronan went, rigid at first, but then, like all the air had gone out of him, slumping into it. Lowly, he said something to Declan that Adam could not make out. Declan did not reply except to shake his head and close his eyes, torchlight throwing long spidery shadows across his cheeks from his long lashes.
Ronan finally drew away, and flicked his eyes back to Gansey, to Blue, to Adam.
“We need to go to the crypt.” He said, slack with defeat.
Declan did not ask questions, only drew himself up to his fullest, kingly height and gave a regal nod, a gesture he had practiced a hundred times in the mirror after his father died.
And so they went.
His stomach was tied in knots.
(Had he known it would end up like this? Had he known all along that his quest was futile? Had he known he would die, one way or another, like this?)
Blue’s hand found his at their sides, hidden by their cloaks and by the half-darkness of the catacombs beneath the palace that not even the torches could banish completely. The air was stale, cold enough to make his nose burn, dusty. A place only for the dying, or the dead. They passed empty cells full of unlocked chains. They went down, down, down.
The crypt was neatly organized, and clean, with urns lining the walls. A slab of stone took up the center of the room, a place for newly-dead royals to be laid to rest until they were put on the pyre.
Noah’s urn was a beautiful thing, and terrible. Gansey remembered Niall having it commissioned, grim and unsmiling for once. Serious, for once. It was patterned in finely-drawn figures, scenes of friendship from the old myths. It was heavier than Gansey remembered, when he took it down off the shelf and passed it to Blue, who took it with a reverent bow of her head.
She knew, better than any of them, what needed to be done, gone cool and deliberate. She was no priestess, but she had grown up surrounded by them. Some things were impossible to not pick up. Rituals were easy to mimic.
She nodded to the stone slab and did not look at him while he climbed upon it, laying down on one side all stiff-limbed like a bride gone to her marriage bed, waiting. Afraid, and curious, and full to the teeth of yawning dread.
Ronan came to his side, laid a hand on his ankle and bowed his head, praying silently.
Adam stood by the entrance, watchful. His eyes missed nothing. Gansey was, as ever, naked beneath their shrewd gaze.
“You need to remember your purpose. That is the most important thing.” Blue advised him, the first time she’d spoken in days. Her voice did not shake. She opened Noah’s urn and began pouring out his ashes in a long line alongside Gansey on the slab. As soon as she did, Ronan’s praying increased in fervor. His grip tightened on Gansey’s ankle.
“If this doesn’t work…” Adam said, swallowing thickly.
“Then you will not be alone for long,” Ronan finished, grimly breaking from his venerating to say it. There could be no mistaking what he meant.
There could be no Ronan without Gansey. Not after so long spent together, practically one being.
Adam nodded once, sharply, and did not make any vows of his own. Gansey heard them anyway, and thought to himself I must not fail.
“Are you ready?” Blue asked him, and only then did her voice shake.
Gansey looked at her, and remembered the first time he laid eyes on her. Remembered how dizzy he’d been, how just the sight of her made him sure. There would be no other. There could be no other. Not anymore.
“I love you.” He replied, as much an answer as he could give.
Blue remembered being an initiate, robed in white the way all initiates were, kneeling at the great altar of the temple they called home and waiting for the god to appear. Remembered the resounding no she gave when she was asked to make her vows. Remembered how she did not know she was going to refuse until she did, how she had woken that morning prepared to dedicate her life to a higher purpose and how she’d known in that instant that there was some other higher purpose she was meant for.
This felt as momentous, twisting her fingers into Gansey’s hair and taking him in, alive, for what may be the very last time. I love you, he said, a god among men, a prince to the disgraced bastard of a high priestess.
How strange it was, to be loved by a godblooded thing when you had lived your life for years and years being cursed by a godblooded thing.
He was so beautiful.
This was the moment. The moment she’d dreamt of for years, had nightmares about for years. Ever since she’d understood what the god had done. Ever since she realized that she could feel the weight of the curse on her shoulders like a ceremonial garland.
Never able to forget. Not for a moment.
“I love you,” she said back, and pressed their mouths together.
“What are they doing down there?” Ashley murmured, pressed all along Declan’s back like a shield. It was a place she found herself occupying more and more lately. Neither of them minded it.
She’d watched the four of them ride in, watched Declan lead them grimly to the top of the stairs that led down to the dungeons, the crypt. They’d moved like mourners, pallbearers.
“Something not for the ears of mortal men.” Declan replied, and drew her arms around his waist so he could hold her hands in his, as gentle as one might cradle a pair of songbirds. He was always so gentle when he touched her.
“I am no mortal. I am no man.” She reminded him, as if he needed the reminder. As if he could forget, with her scent light and sweet in the air, her breasts pressed into his back, her hands soft and unmistakably feminine in his.
“I think,” he began, and trailed off, trying to decide whether or not to confide this in her. “I think they’re trying to bring someone back from hell.”
There was no response. What could she say?
Good luck to them, she thought, and closed her eyes. She squeezed her arms tighter around Declan’s waist. He exhaled, long and slow.
I am afraid, he did not say, that they will fail.
I am afraid, he did not even want to think, that they will fail, and I will be burning my brother’s body by dawn.
Uncle, Gansey said—
and he was, he was
d e a d.
but he did not ask, he
the son of two kings,
he was the son of two kings,
and he did not ask for anything.
He was Gansey
He was Gansey
He was Gansey
Uncle, Gansey said, dead, sunk beneath the surface of his skin and then further, falling, falling, he had fallen and there were gold coins over his eyes, there were gold coins and he was drowning in it and he said Uncle, I demand—
and Noah had haunted every single dream he had had in seven years, there was nothing but Noah and the knowledge that he had been a foolish child and it was his fault, his fault and there was a prince dead and he was a prince dead without a kingdom—
Uncle, I demand you give him back to me— but who was he speaking to? There was nothing there was no one there was f a l l i n g and nothing else, but he knew the script of this story he had been a child and his sister had told him stories no not his sister his mother had told him stories no not his mother it had been Ronan’s mother who had told him stories—
Ronan, who said you will not be alone and who meant it in the most final way anyone could mean it a vow a promise a pact he would not go on and leave Gansey behind not even if he could go on with Adam—
Adam, who said nothing but would not let them go somewhere he could not follow he would not be left behind either, he wouldn’t and that would be three bodies for the pyre and Blue all alone in the crypt—
Blue, who would not fall on her sword alongside them but who would carry their memory in her chest and know she had been the one to kill him, in the end—
and Gansey was so selfish, he was so selfish, he said Uncle, I demand you give him back to me and it was all pointless, wasn’t it? It was pointless because the gods had never answered him, he had begged and he had pleaded and he had prayed and—
You are not my son, his stepfather had said, not angry not scornful not cruel only dispassionate— he said you are not my son and Gansey was alone, alone, alone, he was alone and he carried the name of a man who was not his father and he had walked for days he had walked and he had come to the peak of the Mountain and he had said father I beseech you please come to me please give me a home but there was no answer, and he had lain there for three days in the rain the rain the rain and there was no food no shelter no anything—
are you alright? Ronan had asked, young and downy-headed with a full mop of dark curls on his head, eyes so kind. Ronan had always loved broken things, had always loved to protect.
it’s okay, it’s okay, Noah had said, when Ronan ran to fetch him, to bring him to Gansey’s side. His hands had been warm and soft and his arms strong and he’d carried Gansey six miles, back to the palace, tucked up to his chest like a lost lamb with a broken leg.
He had saved Gansey. They both had.
And Gansey had failed them.
Uncle, I demand you give him back to me, Gansey whispered, stretched thin and cold.
Please, he whispered.
Please, please give him back to me. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean it. I won’t do it again. Please.
He’d been furious with it, blood roaring in his ears, full of the kind of berserker rage that came on like a wave of sickness, grinning and on fire with it, sure of his own invulnerability. A half-step away from a god, and a legend already. They said his mother had dipped him in the River as a child and made him invincible. And his mother was long-dead but maybe it was true— and Niall had led the charge and Gansey was aching to his marrow for glory and Ronan was across the field and Gansey had raised his sword a second too late and he was going to die except—
except there had been Noah, and even dying and bleeding on the ground he’d not blamed Gansey, even when he should have.
And Gansey said Uncle, please, give him back to me—
and Noah said it’s okay, it’s okay, and there were arms around his body where before he had no body because he’d slipped out of it, and fallen, and—
Gansey opened his eyes, and was alive.
Faith was a complicated thing.
Ronan had faith because he had seen the gods, and had known his father, and had listened to the things his mother said, things no mortal could know without divine inspiration. Ronan had faith because his best friend was more god than he was man.
Ronan’s faith was a complicated thing.
He saw the gods and knew they were real, but he also knew that the majority of them did not care about mortal lives. They were all just specks of insignificance, until they made some kind of mark. Until they became legends, heroes, things that the gods could not ignore.
And yet, there was a long way between acknowledgement and watching your dead best friend come back to life right alongside your other dead best friend.
Later, Ronan could not explain the moment of resurrection. He could not explain how one moment there was Gansey’s corpse, skin going cold beneath his hand, and the next there was Gansey, cheeks flooding with color and lungs expanding. He could not explain how one moment there was a pile of ashes that had once been Noah laid out in a neat mound, and the next there was Noah, tall and golden-haired and lanky and just exactly the way he was when he died, except instead of a caved-in cheek there was naught but a pale lavender mark, like a bruise, staining his skin like a reminder.
He could not explain his reaction, which was not joyful but instead grateful, and he could not explain his weeping, and he could not explain anything, because he didn’t have to.
There was Noah and there was Gansey, and they had not been thus in so long that Ronan had almost grown used to the cold space at his side Noah had once occupied, as vital as a missing limb.
There was Noah and there was Gansey, and nothing else was important. Not right now.
Adam slipped from the crypt unnoticed, his duties as sentry to their ritual complete.
Noah was not like he’d imagined. He’d imagined— he didn’t know. Ronan had said everything and Noah was somehow that— was somehow everything, tangled in Ronan’s arms.
Blue had been tugged into the embrace, the four of them a pile of bones and skin and gratitude.
Adam felt colder than he could ever remember being when he made his way up out of the catacombs, up the long staircase.
Declan, who had never before acknowledged him, grabbed him by the upper arms as soon as he came into sight. “And?” He asked, with eyes burning feverbright. Younger than a king had any right to be.
What a mess Niall had left, Adam mused. What a mess.
“It worked.” He said shortly, and extricated himself, walking on. He wasn’t sure where he’d go, only that it needed to be away.
Noah opened his eyes for the first time in seven years and breathed a lungful of chilly, dusty air that tasted sweeter than he could remember anything ever tasting.
He opened his eyes and was alive, and there was nothing but shadows between him and his old life, shadows and floating. Shadows and ache.
There was no shadows, now. No ache. No floating.
There was Ronan and Gansey, who had aged but were still the boys they’d been, the boys he’d loved beyond all sense or reason, lion cubs he’d tucked up beneath his wings to shelter them from the world.
“Your hair,” he said to Ronan, the first words he’d spoken in seven years, running a hand wonderingly over Ronan’s bare, shaved scalp. Ronan laughed then, an incredulous bark of a sound that contained seven years’ worth of heartbreak.
“Damn you,” Ronan all but wept, and pressed his face into Noah’s neck, wrapped his arms around them both.
“It’s okay,” Noah mumbled. “It’s okay.”
It was. It was going to be.
They emerged from the crypt with their limbs still tangled together, as if they’d become a great creature of myth that had four sets of arms and legs, four heads. Something that breathed fire and hoarded precious things jealously.
Something missing a fifth head, a fifth heart, but Ronan would remedy that soon enough.
Ronan’s old bed was made up neatly, and Prioni was perched on one of the pillows already when they arrived, grooming her feathers and coolly regarding them. Kerrah, she greeted him, her way of saying both Ronan and my love.
He left the three of them burrowed beneath the silk sheets, absently tucking the fabric around their bodies like Old Nan used to do every night before he went.
He found Adam in the throne room, wrapped in his cloak and stood in the center of the space like an island adrift in the sea. He was straight-backed. Adam always had such perfect posture.
“Thank you.” Ronan said, and meant thank you for everything you have ever done and everything you are, thank you for being this person thank you for existing thank you.
“I thought you wouldn’t leave his side.” Adam replied, turning to look him in the face, and meant why are you here?
“You were missing.” Ronan shrugged.
Hope spilled into the air between them, which was not thick with tension but instead soft with possibility.
Adam crossed the room.
“What will you do now?” He asked, and wrapped a proprietary hand around Ronan’s wrist, staking some sort of claim.
Ronan shrugged again. “I never wanted to leave the Barns, when I was young.” He tipped his face down, the tips of their noses grazing together. “I’d like to stay here. For a while.”
Adam didn’t respond except to press their mouths together.
He wouldn’t mind staying for a while.
“Is it done?” Maura asked, feeling a tremble in the air that tasted like blueberries and smelt of live steel. Blue, the wind whispered, in a voice like the first winter frost.
“For now.” Persephone hummed in response, not looking up from where she was braiding elaborate whorls into Calla’s hair.
Maura sighed. “Do you think I ought to have told her, before she left?”
“And wasted the favor on what the godprince could do without help? Absolutely not.” Calla rolled her eyes, wincing when Persephone tugged on a tender section of hair.
“She’ll need the sleeping king before it’s all said and done,” Persephone agreed, nodding in a way that made her voluminous hair tremble, a wide cloud of white. “Best that we didn’t tell her. She’s not a good liar, after all.”
“No,” Maura murmured, and went to the window so she could gaze out over the sea. “She isn’t.”